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GROWTH SURF Students 2018

Around the world with GROWTH SURF

The dynamic universe is teeming with activity - catastrophic explosions, fast flying asteroids, pulsating stars, neutron stars spiraling toward each other and much more. This summer, GROWTH SURF students will discover more about this ever-changing universe, each from a different vantage point on Earth. Seven undergraduate will travel to GROWTH partner institutions around the world, armed with itchy curiosity and urge to learn more about the cosmos and the people who explore it.

Some of the most studied, yet still not fully understood objects in the sky are supernovae - cataclysmic explosions of dying stars that can outshine a galaxy. A class of supernovae, called Type Ia is unique because such supernovae emit the same amount of light that has been precisely measured by astronomers, making them a unique tool to measure distances in the universe. It was Type Ia supernovae that helped astronomers discover that the universe is expanding at an ever increasing speed. Mark Poe, an undergraduate from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee will visit the University of Stockholm to work with Swedish members of the GROWTH team who look at large samples of Type Ia supernovae to refine cosmological models. Mark will process and analyze fresh data from the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) survey, which began operations in spring 2018. A single father of a six-year old, Mark admits that it will be emotionally challenging to leave his son but he takes it as a "healthy challenge" because "...the fun involved in potential scientific discovery cannot be overstated". This will not be Mark's first-hand experience with research. He has already been part of larger collaborations such as LIGO and NANOGrav. But a GROWTH internship is something more. "I’m confident that the experience of working internationally will allow me to mature as a scientist, and to undergo personal growth, as well as provide a unique opportunity to combine two of my favorite things, science and travel." - says Mark.

Woody Ko, who is a junior in the Department of Computer Science and Information Engineering in the National Central University, Taiwan will also look at supernovae in the ZTF data, but of a different kind and with a different team. Woody will come to Caltech to sieve through ZTF data in search of so called stripped-envelope supernovae. He and his mentor, postdoctoral fellow Christoffer Fremling will then use a variety of modeling techniques to learn more about the origins and powering mechanism of stripped-envelope supernovae. Woody is interested in neural networks, deep learning and AI and proficient in computer languages, like Python, C, C++, Java, Matlab and more. As a son of an astronomer, he is excited to apply his skills to solving astrophysical problems.

Novae are cousins to supernovae that are equally fascinating. Especially, if one can study them using a fully-robotic telescope. This is what Meghna Sitaram, a second-year Indian-American undergraduate student majoring in physics and astronomy at the University of Maryland will do as part of her project at the Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. Meghna has always been impressed by scientists' ability to infer information using light and she is particularly excited to learn how astronomers use spectroscopy - breaking down light to its various frequency components - to study the composition and evolution of novae. "Liverpool Telescope is a state of the art telescope and being able to study novae with this data would be an amazing opportunity." - says Meghna. Since she was a child, she has been exposed to different cultures during her frequent trips to India. She believes that "the diversity of thought introduced in large international collaborations is valuable for driving scientific progress" and she is eager to become part of the GROWTH family.

Astronomers need not always wait for a star to die in a supernova to use it as a distance-measuring tool. Some stars vary in brightness periodically and this can make them distance indicators as well. Alison Duck who is an undergraduate at the University of Maryland will work with GROWTH researchers in Taiwan to look for a class of variable stars called RR Lyrae in ZTF data and calibrate their absolute magnitudes. Alison has a deep interest in astronomy, particularly exoplanets. Last summer, she was a NASA intern in the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab where she studied lunar craters. “An internship with the GROWTH SURF program would help me refine my interest in time domain astronomy and help me explore possible fields of study and regions of the world for graduate school.” - says Alison.

When many stars cluster together, a galaxy is formed. And just like stars, galaxies themselves come in multiple flavors. Zhen-Kai Gao, a master student from the National Central University in Taiwan is particularly interested in early-type galaxies with recent or ongoing star formation. He will travel to Caltech to investigate whether a specific technique can be used to find such early type galaxies in a newly developed galaxy survey called Census of the Local Universe. This will not be Zhen-Kai's first taste of research. He has participated in several international projects so far and is currently writing a proposal to Arizona Radio Observatory to observe molecular clouds inside star-forming early-type galaxies. "Communicating with researchers around the world who have a similar project to yours can enhance and broaden your mind considerably". - says Zhen-Kai.

The closest galaxy to us, the Andromeda galaxy, is approximately 2.5 million light years away - a distance, which is hard for the human mind to comprehend. But there is enough to explore much close to home. Astronomers monitor asteroids that can potentially hit Earth and study their composition in order to find out how our solar system was formed. Sherry Liang from Caltech will visit the GROWTH group in Taiwan to work on analysis of asteroid data from the PTF and ZTF surveys. Sherry's first research project was in high school when she observed and studied double star objects. She has been interested in astronomy ever since. “This experience opened my eyes to a broader world that was far beyond the confines of my classrooms and the pages of textbooks" - says Sherry. Originally from China, Sherry moved to the USA in her teenage years. She is a passionate traveler having visited more than 20 countries. Sherry hopes that an internship with GROWTH will "...fuel my intellectual curiosity and help me develop a more accepting and comprehensive world view".

Bon Voyage to our GROWTH SURF students.


Iva Kostadinova
Communications and Media Contact
+1 626 395 2952

GROWTH is funded by the National Science Foundation under Grant No 1545949. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.